Generational categories have become commonplace in the [human resources and business management publications] and have also been lent respectability by a growing academic interest in the subject…. Social scientific accounts are generally skeptical of the more sweeping uses of generations as units of analysis, but this has done little to temper other writing on the subject…. The implication for management is that, if current recruits are qualitatively different from previous intakes, then perhaps it is employers who need to adapt to the new intake, rather than vice versa. (Williams, 2019, p. 2)
As practitioners have adopted the concept of generations, scholars have strived to examine the differences between generational groups and to provide evidence for the idea that these different groups have unique values, attitudes, preferences, and expectations both in and outside of the workplace. While many researchers are supportive of the concept of generations, a growing group of academics have questioned the validity of the idea that people are psychologically different according to when they were born. (Parry and Urwin, 2017, p. 140)
The past 20 years have seen significant discussions of generations in the workforce. These discussions can be found in myriad articles and books directed at personnel managers and human resources professionals focused on how to manage different generations in the workplace, as well as in increased research studies aimed at scientifically measuring and
confirming the relevance of any differences among generations to work-related outcomes. Practitioners and scholars alike continue to debate whether such generational differences exist and whether generational categories are meaningful distinctions for workforce management.
At the same time, it is recognized that broad societal trends are affecting workers of all ages. Research in a number of disciplines has examined the impacts of social trends on work (Hoffman, Shoss, and Wegman, 2020), highlighting the changes and associated challenges faced by the modern workplace, including rapidly advancing technologies, an increasingly diverse workforce, trends in globalization, and new employer–employee relationships. Employers across various sectors, including the military, are attempting to recruit, manage, and retain workers while coping with these shifts, as well as new and evolving trends in worker preferences, such as improved work–life balance, flexible schedules, and later retirements.
The Committee on the Consideration of Generational Issues in Workforce Management and Employment Practices was convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to examine the salience of generational categories to workforce issues. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI), whose mission is to maximize the performance and readiness of individuals and units within the Army through research on topics related to personnel performance and training.1 The Army’s interest in workforce issues is long-standing; the need to recruit, train, and retain a large number of personnel has led the Army to explore different ways of understanding potential recruits and current personnel.
The committee included experts in the areas of management, industrial and organizational psychology, research methods and statistics, learning sciences, adult development, personality and psychology, sociology, economics, discrimination and diversity, and military personnel. The committee was tasked with assessing the scientific literature on generational attitudes and behaviors in the workforce and evaluating whether the categorization of generations is a meaningful way of understanding and managing the workforce. The committee was also asked to recommend directions for future research and for any changes to employment practices. (See Box 1-1 for the committee’s full statement of task.)
In undertaking its charge, the committee sought to identify and assemble the peer-reviewed literature on generational attitudes and behaviors relevant to the workplace, broadly defined, and to understand
the common needs of employers and employees across many sectors, as well as the unique needs of the military. While the focus of this work was on assessment of the generational literature on work-related outcomes, the committee also drew on research in a range of fields, including economics, education, management, psychology, and sociology, to provide context for its assessment and advice for management, as well as identify future research needs.
This committee recognized that a previous National Academies study (National Research Council [NRC], 2002) examined the generational claims in the popular literature and found them to run counter to scientific findings (see Box 1-2). Since the publication of that letter report, much research has emerged in an effort to identify true generational differences, notably those related to work. This report examines the rigor of this recent research.
During the course of this study, the committee held five meetings. These meetings consisted of a combination of information-gathering sessions open to the public and closed sessions in which the committee deliberated on this information and findings from its review of the relevant literature (see below), and developed conclusions and recommendations for this report. The committee also held two public workshops:
- The first public workshop, “Trends in Workforce Management: Are Generational Labels Meaningful?,” was held May 29, 2019, in Washington, DC. It explored recent and predicted societal and demographic trends in the United States with implications for the workplace, as well as how employers, with special attention to the military, have responded to these trends and to any evidence of generational differences in the workplace.
- The second public workshop, “Changes in the Work Environment: Societal Trends and Workforce Management,” was held July 30, 2019, in Washington, DC. In this workshop, researchers from the fields of sociology, psychology, economics, and business management presented the evidence for changes in the workplace and the resulting challenges and opportunities for workforce management.
In addition, the committee heard from an expert on science communication to gain perspective on how it could be improved to strengthen connections between research and practice.
During the public sessions and workshops, the committee heard presentations from a number of stakeholders, including the sponsor, researchers, human resources professionals, military personnel officers, and corporate representatives (see Box 1-3).
The committee also was tasked to “gather, review, and discuss the business management and the behavioral science literature on generational attitudes and behaviors in workforce management and employment practices.” In its literature search, the committee identified several recent literature reviews on this topic and more than 500 articles in the scientific literature published since 1980. (Appendix A details the committee’s search strategy and describes the literature reviewed).
This section explains how the concept of “generation” was used for this study and describes the foundational concepts of age, period, and cohort effects.
The scientific literature has defined the term “generation” in various ways. According to Merriam-Webster (2019), the term can refer to a number of concepts, including
- a body of living beings constituting a single step in the line of descent from an ancestor;
- a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously;
- a group of individuals having contemporaneously a status (such as that of students in a school) that each one holds only for a limited period; and
- the average span of time between the birth of parents and that of their offspring.
In the conduct of empirical research, a concept needs to be operationalized so it can be linked to variables that can be measured and studied. As discussed in Chapter 4, the concept of generation has been difficult to operationalize, and for many studies, birth cohort has been used as a proxy for generation. In this report, the committee has adopted a similar approach, using the term “generation” to denote a birth cohort, that is, a group of people born during a particular year or sequential set of years.
Age, Period, and Cohort Effects
Age is measured as time since birth and is a changing characteristic of individuals. An age effect occurs when individuals of different ages vary in the way they think, feel, and behave because of factors related to their stage of the life course. Age effects are considered developmental influences because they are a result of biological factors or maturation that occurs to all people regardless of when in history they were born and current historical conditions. For example, younger workers may be physically stronger (on average) than older workers because of age-related changes in muscle fibers.
Period is typically captured as the year of observation and is a changing characteristic of the broader sociohistorical context. A (time) period effect occurs when individuals change in the way they think, feel, and behave because of the events or social phenomena of a specific point in history. For example, the impact of a global pandemic might lead to increased anxiety for all people in a society at a given point in time, regardless of age group. After the pandemic had ended, everyone might express more apprehension about disease, even if at different levels, than they would have before the pandemic.
A cohort is a group of individuals with distinct characteristics or experiences. Cohorts are often defined as those individuals born in the same year and expected or known to have moved through their lives in concert and experienced major events at the same point in their development. The same idea applies to people who were born within a narrow set of birth years, which is why generational research often combines multiple birth years. Birth year is a fixed attribute of individuals. If a strong cohort effect is observed in statistical analysis, this would indicate, for example, that workers born in 1972 are categorically different from workers born in 1992 as a result of the differential influence of cultural, historical, and social events. A cohort effect differs from a period effect in that with a cohort effect, particular historical experiences influence a specific group of people because of their stage of development (or other unique characteristic) at the time of exposure, whereas a period effect impacts all people regardless of age. A cohort effect is unique to people born in a particular year or set of years because of when in their development they were exposed to particular events. For example, the events of an economic depression might make all people sensitive to financial losses after the depression (a period effect), or it might uniquely affect a group in their formative years (a cohort effect) because of the more negative emotional and economic impact on their earning potential at a time when they were entering or exploring the labor market.
For most studies of people and the variations among individuals over time, some aspects of age, period, and cohort all may contribute to the outcomes observed. The challenge for researchers is to identify which is the predominant influence. See further discussion of age, period, and cohort effects in Chapter 4.
The remainder of this report consists of five chapters. Chapter 2 explores the macro economic, military, political, and social trends changing the nature of work and the workforce. Chapter 3 provides background on the origins of generational theory and its adaptions for use in the popular press, business advice, and research. Chapter 4 presents the committee’s findings and conclusions from its review of the scientific research on generational attitudes and behaviors in the workforce and provides an overview of the conceptual and methodological issues that challenge this research. Chapter 5 examines the appeal and risks of using generational categories and provides alternative perspectives on the multiple influences on workforce development that can be applied in future research. Finally, Chapter 6 builds on the trends discussed in Chapter 2 to examine implications for workforce management. It highlights recruitment and retention challenges faced by the military, first responder, nursing, hospitality, and education sectors. In light of the committee’s findings on the use of generational categories and the state of the generational literature, this chapter also summarizes legal constraints on workforce management and provides recommendations for employers on approaching management decisions and policy changes. This report also includes two appendixes: Appendix A summarizes the committee’s approach to reviewing the literature on generational attitudes and behaviors in the workforce, while Appendix B provides biographical sketches of the committee members.